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The Central Graubünden region south of Chur is perhaps the canton’s wildest area, characterized by deep, narrow valleys, ancient forests, tumbling mountain torrents and a succession of quiet old villages that feel as if they’ve seen few visitors since the Roman legions – who are known to have crossed the two main Alpine passes of the area, the Splügen and the Julier. Aside from simple inns in most villages, there are few facilities for tourists anywhere, and not even many side routes by which you can escape into the wilderness: the most convenient way to experience the area is through the window of a train or a postbus, both of which offer spectacularly scenic rides through different valleys.
The train from Chur to St Moritz heads west to the road and rail junction of Reichenau before cutting south into the Hinterrhein valley to the village of Rhäzüns. On a forested rise down by the river, ten minutes’ walk north of the village, is the isolated chapel of Sogn Gieri (St George), the building dating from Carolingian times, its interior covered with amazingly fresh and colourful frescoes made in the sixteenth century (chapel kept locked; key and map available at Rhäzüns station). South of Rhäzüns, the valley sides close in, opening out again south of Rothenbrunnen below the sharp ridges of the Domleschg to the east, cresting 2500m, and the rounded gentler slopes of the Heinzenberg to the west.
Some 12km south of Rhäzüns is the main town of the region, Thusis, loomed over on all sides by precipitous mountains and thick forest. From here, the main road continues south to Bellinzona (see below) – another road swings east, shadowed by the train line which coils into the deep ravine of the Albula for a memorably dramatic journey passing below sheer cliffs, through 16 tunnels and over 27 bridges, including one viaduct which carries the line 89m above the yawning valley. Both road and rail line arrive after 12km at Tiefencastel, a small valley-bottom crossroads town, its prominent white church saving it from being lost altogether in the thick pine forests on all sides. Every route from Tiefencastel is up, and although trains continue east on their circuitous route to St Moritz, buses follow a more dramatic road climbing steeply south towards the Julierpass, passing on the way through the hamlet of BIVIO. This tiny place is the only commune north of the Alps with an Italian-speaking majority – although in true Swiss style it also has a long-standing Romansh minority and some German speakers as well. Most Italian speakers use Lombardic Italian, broadly similar to the dialect of the Val Bregaglia, although linguists have picked up use of the Bergamasco dialect, brought over the mountains from Italy, as well as formal, written “High” Italian. Just to complete the jigsaw, the hamlet has both a Catholic and a Protestant church, each with a multilingual pastor. Bivio’s cosy Hotel Solaria (081/684 51 07, fax 684 12 90; b), in the same family for three generations, offers summer horse-riding and walking packages: a two-day horse ride over the isolated, pedestrian-only Septimer Pass (2310m), including full board in the hotel and a guide, costs from Fr.400; while five half-board overnights, plus guided half-day rides or hikes is Fr.650. Contact Bivio’s tourist office (081/684 53 23, fax 684 55 58, email@example.com) for more details. Ten kilometres or so south of Bivio is the Julierpass or Pass dal Güglia (2284m), the heights of which are still marked by the column stumps of a long-demolished Roman temple. The Upper Engadine, and St Moritz, lie just over the pass.
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